King is the murderer
and royal successor of Hamlet’s father and husband of his victim's widow,
Queen Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. The central issue of the play is the
conflict between Hamlet's desire for vengeance against the King—to which
he has been sworn by his father's Ghost—and his recognition that revenge
would involve him in evil himself.
The King's crime, by
his own confession, 'is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal
eldest curse upon't' (3.3.36-37)—that is, he has followed Cain, the first
criminal, in murdering his brother. Cain is referred to several times in
the play—e.g., in 1.2.105 and 5.1.76—reminding us of the King's heinous
compares his father and King Claudius. Although he is surprised when the
Ghost tells him of the murder, he is not surprised, a few lines later, to
learn the killer's identity, for his 'prophetic soul' (1.5.41) has already
apprehended his uncle's character. Earlier, in his first soliloquy, he
despises the King as an inferior successor to his father, 'so excel lent a
king, that was to this / [as] Hyperion [is] to a satyr' (1.2.139-140). He
elaborates on this comparison when he upbraids his mother in 3.4.
In 1.1 an ideal of
kingship is established in recollections of the heroic achievements of
Hamlet's father and in the sense of dread occasioned by his death; the
implicit contrast with Claudius persists throughout the play, as we become
aware that the King's crime is the source of the evil that permeates the
play's world, the 'something . . . rotten in the state of Denmark'
(1.4.90). In a telling detail, the King is closely associated with
excessive drinking, presented as a characteristically Danish failing. He
often proposes toasts, the rowdy behavior of his court is noted, and
Hamlet finds it likely that he would be 'distempered . . . With drink'
(3.2.293-294) or 'drunk asleep' (3.3.89). Appropriately, Claudius finally
falls victim to his own poisoned wine.
Despite the King's
distinctly evil nature, he does have some redeeming features. In fact,
some commentators believe that the playwright intended King Claudius as an
admirable ruler and man and that Hamlet's contrary opinion is a result of
his tragic insanity. Most critics, however, find the King's wicked nature
abundantly evident; his good features exemplify Shakespeare's genius for
providing fully human portraits. The King is clearly intelligent and quick
witted, particularly in 4.5.112-152, where he defuses the coup by Laertes
with smooth talk and converts the rebel into an accomplice. In 1.2, as he
disposes of court business, we see that he is a reasonable man, a
competent diplomat, and a generally able monarch. The King even reveals,
however fleetingly, his bad conscience about his crimes when he compares
his 'deed to [his] painted word' (3.1.49-54) and when he tries to pray in
3.3. However, as he recognizes, 'Words without thoughts never to heaven
go' (3.3.98), and, unable to repent sincerely, he continues in his evil
Beginning with his
recruitment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet, the King
schemes cruelly against the prince. His two death plots—to have him
executed in England and to arrange a rigged fencing match—are particularly
vile. The King recruits Laertes after Hamlet escapes from England, but
when, at the climax, his follower repents and seeks the prince's
forgiveness, the King is left as the sole focus of our sense of evil in
the play. When Hamlet kills him, he cries, 'Here, thou incestuous,
murd'rous, damned Dane' (5.2.330); his villainy is emphatically described
and condemned. Horatio leaves us with a final summary of the King's role
when he refers to his 'carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts' (5.2.386).
Shakespeare may have
named Claudius, or the name may have come from his source, the UR-HAMLET,
but in either case the King was named for a Roman emperor, Claudius I (10
B.C.-54 A.D.), who was regarded in Shakespeare's day as a prime example of
an evil ruler. (His modern reputation is considerably better, in part
because of Robert Graves' novel /, Claudius .) Upon his accession to
the throne in 41 A.D., Claudius married his niece Agrippina, an incestuous
relationship that may have influenced the choice of names. Agrippina later
poisoned Claudius and was herself murdered by her son, Nero, as Hamlet
recollects in 3.2.384-385.
Hamlet is the crown
prince of Denmark. Prince Hamlet is required by his murdered father's
Ghost to take vengeance on the present King, his uncle, who committed the
murder and then married the widow of his victim, Hamlet's mother, the
Queen. Hamlet's troubled response to this situation, his disturbed
relations with those around him, and his eventual acceptance of his
destiny constitute the play.
Hamlet is almost
universally considered one of the most remarkable characters in all of
literature. His language, extraordinary even in Shakespeare's oeuvre,
sweeps us up in a seemingly endless stream of brilliant impressions. He
does not often use the similes and metaphors of ordinary speech, instead
pouring forth fully fleshed images that convey the excitement of his
thought. His psychology is stirringly genuine because it is humanly
complex; he is filled with passion and contradiction, and his emotional
life develops credibly through the course of the play. His personality,
his attitudes and ideas, even his subconscious, have intrigued readers and
theatre-goers for centuries, and copious commentary on him is still being
written. Many writers have supposed that Hamlet's troubled mind reflects a
traumatic development in Shakespeare's life, although there is almost no
evidence of the playwright's personal life to confirm or refute this
foreshadows the psychologically realistic characters of modern drama,
Shakespeare did not create the prince's emotional life for its own sake
but rather as a vehicle for presenting a philosophical attitude. Hamlet's
troubled mind demonstrates the development of an acceptance of life
despite the existence of human evil, and this is the dominant theme of the
play. The critical element in this development is the prince's recognition
of evil in himself; in containing both good and evil, he represents the
dual nature of humankind. The reconciliation of humanity with its own
flawed nature is a central concern of Shakespeare's work, and in Hamlet an
evolution of attitudes leading to this conclusion is displayed in a grand
and powerful portrait.
Although he can deal
in a practical manner with the world of intrigue that surrounds him,
Hamlet is more a thinker than a doer, and he directs our attention often
to his own concerns, large issues such as suicide, the virtues and defects
of humankind, and the possibility of life after death. Above all, his
circumstances demand that he consider the nature of evil.
We first encounter
the prince as he struggles to deal with his father's death. In 1.2.76-86
he describes his mournful state; dressed in funereal black, conscious that
he looks dejected and can be seen to have been weeping, he nevertheless
asserts that this appearance cannot convey the depths of his grief. By
focusing on the difference between appearance and reality—a difference
that here is merely one of degree since his inner state is at least
superficially indicated by his dress and demeanor—Hamlet betrays the
confused perception that comes with great emotional trauma. In the early
stages of grief, the ordinary aspects of existence seem absurdly thin and
weak, inappropriate to the mourner's overwhelming sense of pain and loss.
In this state of
mind, Hamlet is strongly offended by his mother's hasty and incestuous
remarriage, even before he learns from the Ghost of his father's murder.
He sees his father as an ideal man and a great king, an assumption
supported by other opinions in the play and by the dignity and grandeur of
the Ghost. He is thus appalled by his mother's willingness to accept an
inferior man, a libertine and—as is soon revealed—a murderer. Hamlet comes
to see his mother as evil and is devastated by the idea. Although he is
the son of a godlike father, he is also the son of a mother who readily
beds with 'a satyr' (1.2.140). Plunged into despondency, he rejects life,
saying, 'How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the
uses of this world! . . . things rank and gross in nature / Possess it
merely' (1.2.133-136). This attitude is further expressed in one of
literature's most powerful evocations of mental depression, 'I have of
late ... lost all my mirth [and] this goodly frame the earth seems to me a
sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air ... appeareth
nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a
piece of work is a man, . . . and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of
dust? Man delights not me—nor woman neither . . .' (2.2.295-309).
He declares that his
life is not worth 'a pin's fee' (1.4.65); indeed, he longs for death, as
he declares more than once, wishing, for instance,'... that this too too
sullied flesh would melt' (1.2.129) and declaring death '. . . a
consummation / Devoutly to be wish'd' (3.1.63-64), though in both of these
speeches he also rejects suicide, once because of the religious injunction
against it and once out of fear of the afterlife.
His disgust with life
turns, therefore, to a revulsion against sex, the mechanism of life's
continuance. Not only does sex generate life, with its evils, but the
attractions of sex have led his mother to adultery and incest. Though some
commentators have supposed that Hamlet unconsciously desires his mother
sexually, as in the Oedipus complex hypothesized by Freud, such a theory
is unnecessary, for the play's world provides the prince with real, not
fantasized, parental conflicts: his father is dead, and he is the enemy of
his mother's lover. However, the facts of Hamlet's situation, dire as they
are, are less important than the interpretation that he puts upon them.
Plainly influenced by his disgust with sex, he is obsessed by the image of
his mother's 'incestuous sheets' (1.2. 157); he virtually ignores the
political consequences of his father's murder—the murderer's succession as
King—and focuses on the sexual implications, and, most significantly, he
transfers his mother's sexual guilt to Ophelia.
Hamlet denies his
love for Ophelia in 3.1.117-119, though only after affirming it two lines
earlier, and Shakespeare plainly intended us to take Hamlet s courtship of
Ophelia before the play begins as having been sincere. Ophelia's shyness
in .3-110-114 along with her regretful one in 3.1.97-99 make this clear.
Moreover, Hamlet's intensity and confusion as he parts from Ophelia-in the
strange behavior she recounts in 2.1.77-100 and in his famous insistence
that she enter a nunnery in 3.1.1-151—indicate his great emotional
involvement However although he apparently loved her earlier, Hamlet does
not actually respond to Ophelia as a person in the course of the play.
Theirs is not a love story but rather a dramatization of Hamlet's
rejection of her, and of love, marriage, and sex. 'Why wouldst thou be a
breeder of sinners?' he cries in 3.1.121-122, and he immediately goes on
to identify himself with the world's evil-doers. Hamlet cannot avoid his
sexual desire for Ophelia, as his obscene jesting in 3.2.108-119
demonstrates, but this episode is also a plain indication of the disgust
he now feels for sex. His attitude symbolizes his condemnation of life, a
viewpoint that he overcomes by the end of the play. Hamlet's delay in
seeking revenge may similarly be seen as a psychological trait emphasized
to make a philosophical point. The prince's procrastination is not
immediately obvious, for not much time seems to pass and only one plain
opportunity for revenge presents itself (m the -prayer scene', 3.3) but
Hamlet insists upon its importance, berating himself as a rogue and
peasant slave . . . / A dull and muddy mettled rascal' (2.2.544, 562); his
assumption of guilt is clearly excessive. Though committed to the idea
that revenge is his duty, Hamlet senses the evil in the obligation sent
from -heaven and hell' (2.2.580), and he resists.
Once the King's guilt
is firmly established by his response to the performance of The Murder of
Gonzago, Hamlet falls victim to a pathological rage. This is first shown
in his chilling resolution, ' 'TIS now the very witching time of night, /
... Now could I drink hot blood . . .' (3.2.379-381). This state of mind
persists as he demands eternal damnation for the King, not merely
murderous revenge, and therefore avoids killing him at prayer in 3.3. Then
in 3.4 he vents his hysterical rage at his mother and kills Polonius with
a furious gesture in the process. This crime lacks even the justification
of revenge. Whatever his faults, Polonius was innocent of Hamlet's fathers
murder and moreover, his death leads to the insanity and subsequent death
of Ophelia, whose blamelessness is absolute. Hamlet's avoidance of one
evil has thus involved him in another, greater one.
Hamlet's rage and his
descent into evil are central to the play, both literally, occurring near
its mid-point, and figuratively, for his deeds trigger its climactic
development. Polonius' son, Laertes, seeks revenge and eventually kills
Hamlet, and more immediately, Polonius' death results in Hamlet's exile,
during which he finds his salvation.
In Act 5 we find that
Hamlet has changed. He meditates on death in the graveyard in 5;1, but now
death is neither welcoming nor fearful; it is merely the normal human
destiny and the prince s remarks are satirical thrusts at the living. His
memories of Yorick are pleasurable appreciations of the past, as well as
occasions for sardonic humor. Ophelia s funeral triggers a last explosion
of emotion as Hamlet assaults Laertes, but although this resembles his
fury of Act 3 here Hamlet restrains himself and departs. His outburst has
been cathartic, producing two significant declarations. As he challenges
Laertes Hamlet proclaims himself -Hamlet the Dane (5.1.251), at last
accepting his role as his fathers heir-Denmark once his -prison' (2.2.243)
is now his kingdom-and at the same time implicitly challenging the King.
Perhaps given courage or awareness by this pronouncement he goes on to
assert the feelings he had suppressed in his anger and depression, stating
‘I lov d Ophelia' (5.1.264). The prince is no longer in the grip of his
In 5 2 Hamlet
confides to Horatio the cause of the change in his sense of himself: by
impulsively rewriting his death warrant to save himself, he has realized
that his hesitations and ponderings had been beside the point. He sees
that -Our indiscretion sometime serves us well / When our deep plots do
pale/There's a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will
. . .' (5.2.8-11). He acknowledger that he cannot carry out the revenge
called for by the Ghost without committing murder, the very crime he must
avenge. He accepts that he must be evil in order to counter evil. He
senses a basic truth: the capacity for evil exists in him because he is
human. In accepting his destiny, Hamlet also prepares for his own death.
He senses his end approaching, as the King's plot takes form, but he
remains composed, saying-There is special providence in the fall of a
sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no
man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is't to leave betimes? Let be 5
2 215-220) This final remark—since we know so 1ittle of the world, it is
no great matter to leave it early reflects the prince's awareness of the
futility of his earlier philosophical inquiries. It is more important to
live and then to die, coming to terms with one s fate.
salvation-his awareness of his human failings-comes only with his death.
However, Horatio's prayer for him, -[May] flights of angels sing thee to
thy rest- (5.2.365), offers the hope of an eternal release from the
stresses the prince has undergone. the playwright leaves us assured his
tragic hero has found peace.
Polonius is a
minister of the King of Denmark. Polonius, the father of Ophelia and
Laertes, loves intrigue and resorts to espionage whenever possible. He
volunteers to spy for the King on Hamlet’s conversation with his mother,
the Queen, in 3.4, and when Hamlet discovers the intruder, he kills him.
The prince stabs through a curtain, so he does not know who his victim is
until he is dead, but he feels no remorse for the deed, remarking coolly
that his victim has learned that 'to be too busy is some danger' (3.4.33).
This killing is the central event of the play, hastening Hamlet's exile to
England and triggering Laertes' vengeance on the prince.
In Hamlet, Polonius
is a pedantic bore and an hypocrite. These traits may derive from the
comical Pantaloon of the Italian commedia dell'arte. (Courtesy of Culver
Pictures, Inc.) danger' (3.4.33). This killing is the central event of the
play, hastening Hamlet's exile to England and triggering Laertes'
vengeance on the prince.
and dishonesty exemplify the state of moral decay in Denmark. After he
offers Laertes his famous advice, 'to thine own self be true .. . Thou
canst not then be false to any man' (1.3.78-80), his hypocrisy reveals
itself, for in 2.1 he sets a spy on Laertes, offering detailed
instructions in espionage and duplicity to Reynaldo. He bars Ophelia from
any contact with Hamlet, presuming that the prince's professions of love
cannot be truthful, perhaps arguing from self-knowledge, and when it
appears that he was wrong and that the prince has gone mad from frustrated
love, he spies on the lovers himself.
murder is not to be taken as justifiable; much of its point depends on our
recognition of it as an evil act, leading us to the further awareness that
Hamlet is capable of evil. Also, Polonius is not completely without good
points, making his killing more reprehensible than it would appear if he
were an absolute villain. For example, while his means are deplorable,
Polonius clearly cares about his son, and his involvement in his welfare
serves to cause Laertes to remain memorable through his long absence from
the play (between 1.3 and 4.5); similarly, Polonius is a fool in his
handling of Ophelia, but there is no doubt of his paternal concern, even
if it can be overlaid with ulterior interests at the same time. Ophelia's
evident heartbreak at his death in her 'mad scene' (4.5) testifies to his
adequacy as a parent.
Polonius is also a
comic character at times. Speaking to the King and Queen of Hamlet's
alleged madness, he begins by stating an ideal that he proceeds to
demolish, asserting '. . . since brevity is the soul of wit, /And
tediousness the limbs and outward nourishes, /I will be brief, and then
goes on to use such verbiage as 'Mad call I it, for to define true
madness, / What is't but to be nothing else but mad?' (2.2.93-94). When
this amusing long-windedness is challenged by the Queen's request for
'More matter with less art', Polonius replies with unwitting candour,
'Madam, I swear I use no art at all' (2.2.95-96). The passage, in which
Polonius repeatedly interrupts himself and loses his train of thought,
parodies a popular tendency of the day to overelaborate rhetoric, and it
softens the portrait of Hamlet's victim. In creating Polonius, Shakespeare
may have been influenced by the Pantaloon, a comically windy moraliser
from the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte.
Polonius appears as
Corambis in the Ql edition of the play, and scholars believe that this
reflects the name of the analogous character in Shakespeare's chief
source, the UR-HAMLET. Shakespeare often changed the names in his sources
for no particular reason, but here he may have wished to avoid using the
caricature probably intended in the Ur-Hamlet. However, the name Polonius
itself makes a clear reference to Poland, also known as Polonia in
Elizabethan England. Scholars believe that the playwright probably
intended an allusion to one of the play's minor sources, a well-known book
on good government. The Counsellor (1598), an English translation
from the Latin work of a Polish statesman.
Horatio is the friend
and confidant of Prince Hamlet. Horatio is the one person in Hamlet's
world whom the prince values and trusts. With Horatio he can speak freely,
and in doing so he demonstrates the evolution of his emotions. Further,
the presence of Horatio lessens Hamlet's otherwise total alienation and
permits relief—for him and for us—from the heightened tension that
characterizes his existence.
Horatio is a calm and
stoical figure whom Hamlet admires as 'A man that Fortune's buffets and
rewards / Hast ta'en with equal thanks ... [a] man / That is not passion's
slave' (3.2.67-72). He thus represents a Renaissance ideal—a person with
the mental discipline to resist highly emotional responses, which were
seen as evidence of humanity's fall from grace. This ideal was
considerably influenced by the newly rediscovered Stoic philosophy of the
classical world, and Horatio rightly thinks of himself as 'more an antique
Roman than a Dane' (5.2.346). His restraint makes Horatio one who 'in
suffering all, . . . suffers nothing' (3.2.66), and Hamlet, embattled by
his own suffering, envies his friend's relative peace of mind. However, it
is precisely his vulnerability that gives Hamlet's emotional odyssey the
grandeur that makes it worth recording. Horatio is an admirable figure,
but he does not spark our imagination or sympathies.
Horatio knew Hamlet
at school, as the prince makes plain in welcoming him from Wittenberg as a
'fellow student' (1.2.177), but otherwise his past is unclear. In 1.1 he
seems to be an intimate of the Danish court, but at several points—most
notably when he must ask if musical accompaniment to drinking toasts is 'a
custom' (1.4.12)—he appears to be unfamiliar with local ways. Horatio's
status in Denmark—Danish nobleman or foreign visitor—is an example of the
many problematic points in Hamlet that scholarship cannot resolve.
Shakespeare probably simply formulated the character in different lights
as he composed the drama and did not concern himself with the minor
contradictions that resulted, as was apparently his habit throughout the
Laertes Character in
Hamlet, son of Polonius, who seeks vengeance against Hamlet for his
father's murder. Laertes is placed in direct contrast with Hamlet by the
fact that each seeks and finally achieves revenge for his father's murder,
although they do so in very different ways. Laertes is distinctly unheroic.
He stoops to fraud and poison with no thought for consequences or
morality. Yet at the close of the play he regrets his underhandedness,
offers forgiveness in place of vengeance, and is himself forgiven.
Laertes is shallow
and immature, as shown by the trite moralizing that inspires his
insistence in 1.3 that Ophelia distrust Hamlet's love and by his
rhetorical and exaggerated responses to his sister's insanity and death in
5.1. As an avenger, he is easily manipulated in 4.5 by the King, who
dissuades him from his rebellion with smooth talk about the divine right
of kings. He gives no thought to honor as he accepts with grim glee the
King's suggestion of a rigged fencing match, adding the idea of poisoning
his sword. Moreover, he is thoughtlessly bold, prepared to sacrifice the
peace of the country and his own salvation 'Conscience and grace, to the
profoundest pit! /1 dare damnation' (4.5.132-133), he bellows—to satisfy
Yet in the end
Laertes begs to 'exchange forgiveness' (5.2.334) with Hamlet, and he
admits that he is 'justly kili'd with mine own treachery' (5.2.313). 'The
King—the King's to blame' (5.2.326), he cries, and, as he renounces his
revenge, Laertes shifts the moral balance of the play in its last moments,
leaving the King as the sole focus of evil. Laertes and Hamlet each kill
his father's killer, while each forgives, and is forgiven by, his own
killer. Contrasted earlier in the play—in their differing relationships
with Ophelia, in Laertes' return to university while Hamlet is detained,
in the contrast of a father's 'double blessing' (1.3.53) for Laertes and
Hamlet's father's death and reappearance as the Ghost—they come together
at its close to represent the conjunction of good and evil in humanity, a
fact whose acceptance is the play's major theme.
Valtemand) is an ambassador to the King of Norway from the King of
Denmark. In 1.2 Voltemand and Cornelius are appointed to deliver the
King's message demanding that the Norwegian king's nephew, Fortinbras, who
is preparing an invasion of Denmark be restrained. The two ambassadors
return in 2 2 and Voltemand delivers a document of agreement that he
summarizes in courtly language. The episode introduces the audience to
Fortinbras while demonstrating the state of national crisis in which the
play takes place.
This character's name
was spelled both Voltemand and Valtemand in the most authoritative early
edition of the play (Q2, 1604); Voltumand and Voltemar appear in early
editions- The second Folio edition (1632) used Voltimand, and this became
the established practice until recently, when a compromise version became
popular. In any form it is a corruption of Valdemar, the name of several
Cornelius is an
ambassador to the King of Norway from the King of Denmark. In 1 2
Cornelius and Voltemand are appointed to carry a message to Norway. The
two ambassadors return in 2.2, and Voltemand reports Norway's reply.
Cornelius barely speaks and serves only to flesh out the play's
presentation of courtly diplomacy.
ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN
Two characters in
Hamlet, courtiers who assist the King of Denmark in his plots against
Hamlet. Only once, and only in some editions, does one appear without the
other. So familiar as a couple, and so similar to each other are this
pair, that they are best dealt with as a unit.
We first encounter
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the King recruits them to spy on Hamlet in
2.2, where he refers to them as the prince's childhood friends. They
respond in the smooth and unctuous language of courtiers, assenting
readily and thus establishing themselves immediately as toadies. When they
first encounter Hamlet, he sees them as his 'excellent good friends'
(2.2.224), but they will not 'deal justly' (2.2.276) with him about their
mission from the King, which he has guessed, and he realises that he in
fact lacks allies, except Horatio. This disappointment triggers his
impressive monologue on depression (2.2.295-310). As foils to Horatio, the
courtiers point up Hamlet's alienation. As agents of the rottenness that
infects the Danish court, they help establish a polarity between the
prince and the King.
Hamlet quickly ends
friendly relations with the two courtiers, to their eventual doom. When
they summon him to a meeting with his mother, he dismisses them by coldly
using the royal 'we' for the only time in the play (3.2.324-325). He
speaks of them to his mother as 'my two schoolfellows, / Whom I will trust
as I will adders fang'd' (3.4.205). His distrust of them leads to his
discovery of the documents ordering his execution in England and his plot
to send the courtiers to this fate in his stead. Their deaths are bluntly
reported in 5.2.376: 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead'.
This line was to
provide the title for Tom Stoppard's 1967 comedy of existential dread. In
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead the two courtiers are innocent,
facing death in a play they know nothing about, and the question of their
innocence in Hamlet is often raised. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern almost
certainly did not know of the King's deadly plot and may thus be seen as
innocent victims of Hamlet's counterstroke. However, the two have
unquestionably been the willing allies of the King; Hamlet has long
recognized them as such and can say 'They are not near my conscience,
their defeat / Does by their own insinuation grow' (5.2.58-59). The
playwright plainly expects us to see the poetic justice in their end; the
fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reflects their involvement in the
evil environment of the Danish court.
Rosencrantz were notable Danish family names of the 16th century; it is
recorded that at the Danish royal coronation of 1596, fully one-tenth of
the aristocratic participants bore one name or the other. Moreover,
several students of each name were enrolled in the university at
Wittenberg—the alma mater of both Hamlet and the two courtiers—in the
1590s. Shakespeare was surely as delighted as we are by the faintly
comical tone conveyed by the combination of these grand names (see, e.g.,
2.2.33-34), but they also help to convey the foreignness of the play's
Osric is a character
in Hamlet, a foppish nobleman in the court of King Claudius of Denmark.
In 5.2 Osric carries the King's request that Hamlet meet Laertes in a
fencing match adding that the King has made a wager on Hamlet. Osric's
highly mannered language and behavior inspire Hamlet's amused derision,
and the prince mocks the messenger, demonstrating the ease with which the
courtier can be made to agree to contradictory assertions and making fun
of his high-flown language. Osric later umpires the fencing match, though
no further attention is paid to him.
Osric functions as
comic relief in the face of the King's rapidly unfolding plot against
Hamlet, which hinges on the fencing match. Further, the distraction
offered by Osric subtly suggests Hamlet's own detachment from the danger
that threatens him. The prince's bemused handling of the silly fop is
reminiscent of his healthy appreciation of Yorick in 5.1. He is no longer
in the grip of grief, and, newly aware of the importance of providence in
human affairs. Hamlet can enjoy Osric. Osric is an ancient Anglo-Saxon
name that was still used occasionally in Shakespeare's day.
Gentleman are either
of two minor characters in Cymbeline, noblemen at King Cymbeline’s court.
In 1 1 the First Gentleman tells the Second Gentleman about the marriage
of the king's daughter, Imogen, to Posthumus, a poor but noble youth who
has been banished from Britain because the king had wanted Imogen to marry
the boorish Cloten. He adds that Imogen is the king's only child, other
than two lost sons, kidnapped 20 years earlier and never recovered. The
First Gentleman's excitement is clear in his hurried speech This stirs
interest in the audience, though his companion merely punctuates his
monologue with brief questions. The episode, which fills the whole of the
play's first scene, establishes the basic situation of the plot.
Priest is the
officiating clergyman at Ophelia funeral. In 5.1 the Priest denies Ophelia
the full ceremony because her death appears to have been a suicide. He
asserts that even an abbreviated service is too much—only 'great command'
(5.1.221), presumably King Claudius', has made it possible—and suggests
that, instead of prayers, 'shards, flints, and pebbles should be thrown on
her' (5.1.224). He insists that the rites for the dead would be profaned
if Ophelia received them. This ugly episode heralds the mood of gloom and
anger that dominates the conclusion of the play. In some editions of the
play the Priest is called the Doctor of Divinity, based on the speech
heading 'Doct.', used for both of his speeches in the Q2 edition (1604).
Some scholars conjecture that this makes him a Protestant.
Marcellus is guard at
Elsinore and with Barnardo, has seen the Ghost of Hamlet’s father before
the opening of the play. In 1.1 they tell Horatio about the spirit, and in
1.2 Hamlet is informed as well. Marcellus accompanies Hamlet and Horatio
when they encounter the Ghost in 1.4; he and Horatio fearfully attempt to
dissuade Hamlet from following it, and in 1.5 Hamlet swears them to
secrecy. Speculating on the cause of the phenomenon, Marcellus utters the
famous observation 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark' (1.4.90).
Scholars believe that the Bad Quarto of Hamlet (Ql, 1603) was recorded by
an actor who had played Marcellus, since that role is the only one whose
dialogue is very accurately rendered there.
Bernardo is an
Elsinore guard who with Marecellus have seen the Ghost of Hamlet’s father
before the play begins. In 1.1 they introduce Hamlet's friend Horatio to
the phenomenon. When the three tell Hamlet about the spirit in 1.2,
Barnardo barely speaks, and when Hamlet accompanies Horatio and Marcellus
to encounter the Ghost in 1.4, Barnardo has disappeared from the play.
Francisco is a sentry
on the walls of the castle at Elsinore. Francisco is relieved from duty by
Barnardo at the opening of 1.1, as the scene's locale is established. He
declares himself1 sick at heart' (1.1.9), suggesting immediately that
something is amiss in the play's world.
Reynaldo is a servant
of Polonius. In 2.l Reynaldo is assigned to spy on his master's son,
Laertes, who is studying in Paris, to make sure he is not engaging in
'such wanton, wild, and usual slips / As are companions . . . / To youth
and liberty' (3.2.22-24). Reynaldo hears out his employer's long-winded
instructions and departs, disappearing from the play.
This brief episode
humorously illustrates the corrupt moral tone of Hamlet’s Denmark,
paralleling the later, more sinister use of spies—Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern--by the King. It also displays the intrusiveness and love of
spying that eventually bring Polonius to his death. Reynaldo is clearly
more sensible than his master, hesitating at times over his orders, but he
has little real personality.
In the Bad Quarto of
Hamlet, Reynaldo is named Montano and Polonius, Corambis. Scholars
speculate that these names may reflect a satirical intention in the
creation of Polonius and Reynaldo—either in Shakespeare's original
conception or in his source, the UR-HAMLET—that the playwright decided
not to pursue.
First Player is the
leading member of the Players, a traveling company of actors who visit
Elsinore and perform before the court of King Claudius. In 2.2 Hamlet
greets the Players with enthusiasm and requests that the First Player
recite a speech he remembers hearing him deliver in a play. Hamlet begins
the speech, and the First Player takes it up; it is a highly dramatic
account of an episode in the Trojan War, the vengeful killing of King
Priam by Pyrrhus, followed by the grief of Queen Hecuba. The First
Player's fine recital is testified to by Polonius, who observes
approvingly that he has 'turned his colour and has tears in's eyes'
(2.2.515-516), effects that were conventionally associated with fine
acting in a tradition extending back to Plato. The First Player receives
Hamlet's instructions to stage The Murder of Gonzago before the court in
2.2.531-536, and he presumably appears as the Player King in the playlet.
Player King is the
character in The Murder of Gonzago, the playlet presented within Hamlet.
In 3.2 the Players stage a play in which the Player King anticipates that
his wife, the Player Queen, will remarry if he dies, despite her protests
to the contrary. Then he is murdered by Lucianus, who pours poison in his
ear while he sleeps. This scenario resembles the actual murder of Hamlet’s
father by King Claudius—as the Ghost has recounted it the prince—and the
King reacts to it with great distress, fleeing from the room. Thus, as he
had planned, Hamlet is presented with proof that the Ghost had told the
truth. The Player King speaks in a highly rhetorical style that distances
the play within a play from the action of the play itself, emphasizing its
artificiality. The part of the Player King is presumably taken by the
First Player, who demonstrates his dramatic gifts when the Players first
arrive at Elsinore in 2.2.
Character in The Murder of Gonzago, the playlet presented within Hamlet.
In 3.2 the Players perform before the court of King Claudius. Following
Hamlet’s instructions, they stage a play in which the Player Queen assures
her husband, the Player King, that she will never remarry if he dies
before her. He insists that she will; in the next scene he is murdered.
The play parallels the murder of Hamlet's father by the King and the
remarriage of his mother, the Queen, so it is obvious that the Player
Queen's part would include her marriage to the killer. However, the
performance is interrupted by the King's guilty reaction, and she never
reappears. The Player Queen is merely a symbolic character. Her highly
rhetorical diction helps to emphasize the extreme artificiality of the
play within a play.
Lucianus is a
character in The Murder of Gonzago, the playlet presented within Hamlet.
In 3.2 the Players, following Hamlet’s instructions, perform before the
court of King Claudius. In their play Lucianus murders the Player King by
pouring poison in his ear, paralleling the murder of Hamlet's father by
the real King. The play is interrupted by the King's guilty
response—according to Hamlet's plan—and Lucianus does not get to complete
his role, which would have involved marrying the Player Queen.
Significantly, Lucianus is the nephew of the king he kills—not the
brother, as a strict analogy with Claudius' crime would require—and thus
he presents to the King not only the image of himself as murderer but also
that of Hamlet as avenger. Lucianus' only lines—a brief address to his
poison 'of midnight weeds collected' (3.2.251)—are in a highly rhetorical
style that is designed to highlight the artificiality of the play within a
Clown, First Grave-digger) Minor character in Hamlet, the digger of
Ophelia’s grave. At the opening of 5.1, the Grave-digger talks with his
friend, called the Other, in a comical series of exchanges on suicide, the
law, and the profession of grave-digging. Hamlet, meditating with Horatio
in the graveyard, speaks with the Grave-digger, who gives flip and
enigmatic answers to his questions. In the course of describing the
decomposition of corpses, he presents the prince with the skull of the
late court jester, Yorick. This plunges Hamlet into another conversation
with Horatio, and the Gravedigger does not speak again.
This scene does not
further the plot; indeed, it quite distinctly delays development,
providing some needed comic relief in the face of the rapidly approaching
climax. The Grave-digger also serves as a subtle commentator on the main
action, rather like a Chorus. He frankly suggests the possibility of
Ophelia's suicide, and his equally honest and humorous attitude to the
world of the aristocrats and 'great folk [who] have countenance in this
world to drown or hang themselves more than their even-Christen' (5.1.
27-29) reminds us of the extent to which intrigue infects Hamlet's world.
Most important, the
Grave-digger's remarks and behavior reflect the play's attitude towards
death: it is the normal human fate to die. The Grave-digger's job makes
this an everyday fact rather than a philosophical observation. At a
crucial point in the play, his demeanour, both prosaic and comical, helps
to make clear to the audience that Hamlet's meditations on death no longer
reflect the depression and grief that characterized him in Acts 1-4 but
are rather the healthy recognition that death and decay are parts of life
that must be accepted.
The Grave-digger is
addressed by his companion as 'Goodman Delver' (5.1.14), which may be his
surname preceded by the honorific 'Goodman' (roughly equivalent to
'Mister'), or it may simply refer to his occupation as a digger. In his
uneducated but knowing humor, he is a good instance of a character type,
the rustic Clown and some editions, including the earliest ones, designate
him accordingly in stage directions and speech headings.
Other (Other Clown,
Second Clown, Second Grave. digger) the Grave-Digger’s friend. The Other
is a straight man whose simple remarks and questions give rise to the
ripostes of his companion in 5.1.1-60. Although theatrical tradition
dating to the 17th century makes the Other—his designation in early
editions of the play—a second grave-digger, some modern editors point out
that he seems to belong to another, unspecified profession when he
addresses the Grave-digger in 5.1.14. Like the Grave-digger, the Other is
a Clown, and some editions identify him accordingly in stage directions
Fortinbras is Prince
of Norway and enemy of Denmark. Although he does not appear until 4.4,
Fortinbras is described in 1.1.98-107 as a hot-blooded young warrior
intent on recapturing lands taken from Norway after the combat in which
his father, the late King of Norway, was killed by Hamlet’s father, the
late King of Denmark. Thus he is immediately established as a parallel
figure to Hamlet, one who is also compelled to avenge his father's death.
Fortinbras' brief appearance in 4.4 on his way to an invasion of
neighboring Poland energizes Hamlet, who sees in this war, directed at no
more than 'a little patch of ground ... a straw ... an eggshell' (4.4.18,
26, 53), a direct and shaming contrast to his own inaction in taking
revenge against his father's murderer, King Claudius. When Hamlet, nearing
death at the play's end, learns that Fortinbras is returning from Poland,
he proclaims him heir to the crown of Denmark. When he arrives, Fortinbras
takes command and orders a military funeral for Hamlet.
example inspires Hamlet to fierce declarations—'My thoughts be bloody or
be nothing worth' (4.4.66)—Hamlet's rhetoric is an overreaction to a
situation that is not in fact analogous to his own. As the play unfolds.
Hamlet comes to realize that an acceptance of fate and its evils is the
only way to understand human life; within this context, Fortinbras, who
works his will in the world and is doubtless uninterested in such
philosophical matters, is clearly a lesser figure. Still, his stalwart
resolution and military valour—reminiscent of Shakespeare's HENRY V—are
not only admirable .-but also stand in important contrast to the evil and
debased intrigue of Hamlet's world.
appears after Hamlet's death in 5.2, he reminds us that he comes as a
hostile power, declaring that he will claim his revenge as his 'vantage
doth invite' (5.2.395), and we realise that Claudius' evil has damaged his
kingdom to the extent that an outsider has taken over. Thus Fortinbras
symbolizes a lesson in political morality that Shakespeare offered in
several plays (e.g., Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, KingLear):
personal evil in powerful members of society will weaken the state as a
whole, often resulting in a surrender of sovereignty to another country.
Captain an officer in
the Norwegian army of Prince Fortinbras. In 4.4 the Captain tells Hamlet
of Fortinbras' march with 20,000 soldiers to conquer a small, valueless
parcel of land in Poland. Shakespeare may take an ironical stance towards
the folly of war in these brief and straight forward lines, but Hamlet
seems to accept Fortinbras' goal as reasonable, responding to the
Captain's account only by comparing his own scruples and hesitations with
the unthinking commitment of the soldiers, who will die fighting for so
small a prize. Thus the incident emphasizes Hamlet's concern with his
failure to avenge his father's death—the central strand of the play's
plot—and reminds us of Fortinbras' strength, which will assume greater
importance at the end of the play.
Ambassador is an
emissary from England to Denmark. The Ambassador arrives at the Danish
court, in 5.2, after the deaths of the King, the Queen, Laertes, and
Hamlet. He reports on the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,
thereby completing an unfinished element in the play's plot. With
Fortinbras, the Ambassador offers an outsider's shocked view of the bloody
collapse of Denmark's monarchy, reinforcing the play's central theme that
evil has a corrupting influence that spreads far beyond its immediate
Queen is Hamlet’s
mother, who has married the brother, successor, and murderer other late
husband, the King of Denmark. Hamlet is horrified by the Queen's
acceptance, soon after her husband's death, of 'incestuous sheets'
(1.2.157), and he is moved to conclude, 'Frailty, thy name is woman'
(1.2.146). His disgust at her behavior is heightened when he learns from
the Ghost, in 1.5.42-52, that she had been the lover of Claudius, the new
King, before he had killed Hamlet's father. Hamlet's detestation of his
mother's part in these evils is transformed into a revulsion against women
in general and against the love—and sex—that they offer, which lead only
to the creation of more humanity and thus more wickedness. His own
beloved, Ophelia, tragically comes to bear the brunt of the prince's
Although the Queen
provides an example of the evil that infects Denmark, she herself is a
somewhat faceless character. She is basically evil through weakness rather
than inclination. The Ghost attributes her wickedness to Claudius and
tells Hamlet to exclude her from his revenge—'Leave her to heaven'
(1.5.86). In her main scene, in which Hamlet repudiates her for her
adultery and her acceptance of the King as a husband, she acknowledges her
guilt, crying out that her soul is contaminated by '. . . such black and
grained spots / As will not leave their tinct' (3.4.90-91). After Hamlet
leaves and the King returns in 4.1, the Queen resumes her role as his
accomplice. But in 5.2, when the Queen turns on her husband and cries out
a warning to Hamlet as she dies, we may suppose that her son has had some
effect on her.
Ophelia is the lover
of Prince Hamlet. In 1.3 Ophelia's brother, Laertes, cautions Ophelia
against believing Hamlet's professions of love, and her father, Polonius,
forbids her to see him. A demure and obedient daughter, Ophelia returns
Hamlet's letters, and, under the pressures of the main plot, Hamlet turns
on her with a seemingly insane revulsion against women in general and her
in particular. She reports his behavior in 2.1 and encounters it in even
more virulent form in 3.1. After her former lover kills her father,
Ophelia becomes insane, babbling about funerals and singing scraps of
songs in 4.5. Her death by drowning is reported by the Queen in 4.7, and
her funeral in 5.1—abbreviated by the Priest because the death seems a
suicide_triggers an encounter between Hamlet and Laertes that foreshadows
the play's climax.
Ophelia's nature is
abundantly affectionate; her wounded but faithful love—both for her father
and for Hamlet—makes her one of the most touching of Shakespeare's
characters. As Laertes observes about Ophelia's lunacy: 'where [love] is
fine / It sends some precious instance of itself / After the thing it
loves' (4.5.161-163). He refers to her love for the dead Polonius, which
has caused her to send herself figuratively (and later literally) after
him to a world beyond life, but the remark is equally appropriate to her
love for Hamlet.
relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is not a love story, for Hamlet
has rejected love. He loved Ophelia before the play opens, as is attested
first by her touching recollection of his gifts and the 'words of so sweet
breath compos'd / As made the things more rich' (3.1.98-99) and then by
his admission at her funeral in 5.1.264-266. He remains sexually attracted
to her—as is shown by his obscene jesting in 3.2.108-117—but he has
displaced on her much of his anger with his mother, the Queen. She has
become for him simply a stimulus for his disgust with women and sex, and
he no longer really sees her as an actual person. Ophelia's fate is thus
an outgrowth of Hamlet's emotional collapse; not only is her life
diminished—and ultimately destroyed—by his actions, but she is a measure
of what he has lost through his mistaken vision of the world.
Ophelia's insanity is
triggered by the crushing of her love for Hamlet and then intensified by
the loss of her father to Hamlet's madness. Her pathetic ravings in 4.5
are concerned with lost loves and death, the grim realities that have
broken her mind. She cannot absorb the conflict implicit in loving both
her father and his murderer. Her bawdy songs reflect the lusts of the
outside world, of which she has no experience but that have contributed to
her plight. The flowers she obsessively alludes to, themselves symbols of
innocence, are poignant emblems of her own youth and inability to deal
with the harsh world of the play.
While the Queen's
description of Ophelia's drowning in 4.7.165-182 permits us to view it as
accidental—a tree branch broke as she fell—she also reports that the
victim made no effort to save herself. In 5.1 the Grave-Digger and the
Priest view her as a suicide, and her death is certainly a result other
madness. But her insanity is the consequence of the actions of others, and
Ophelia is unquestionably a victim of the tragic events that beset Denmark
throughout the play.
Some scholars believe
that Ophelia's name—which means 'succor' in Greek, a seemingly
inappropriate designation for so victimised a character—may have been used
in error instead of Aphelia, meaning 'simplicity' or 'innocence'. Both
names were rare in Shakespeare's time.
Lord is a member of
the court of the King of Denmark. In 4.3 the Lords provide an audience for
the King's remarks on the danger of Prince Hamlet’s madness. In 5.1 they
attend the funeral of Ophelia and help break up the fight between Hamlet
and Laertes. In 5.2 one of the Lords delivers a request from the Queen
that Hamlet make peace with Laertes before their upcoming fencing match,
and the Lords are presumably among the crowd of courtiers—'all the State'
in the stage direction at 5.2.220—who witness that contest. As anonymous
onlookers, the Lords heighten our sense of Hamlet's isolation, and they
also contribute to a sense of the stratified social world in which the
Sailors are any
bearers of a letter to Horatio. In 4.6 a group of Sailors bring Horatio a
message from Prince Hamlet. The First Sailor speaks for them all; he seems
to lack sophistication because he delivers the missive and afterwards
ascertains Horatio's identity. Horatio reads the message aloud, in an
aside, and we realize that the Sailors are probably part of the pirate
crew mentioned in it. Horatio leaves with them to find the prince. The
episode announces Hamlet's return to Denmark and the approach of the
The Messenger brings
the King of Denmark news that Laertes has raised a rebellion and is
approaching. His hysteria emphasizes the degree of disruption that the
play's developments have produced. In a calmer mood the Messenger brings
the King letters from Hamlet in 4.7.
Ghost is the spirit
of the murdered King of Denmark, Hamlet’s late father. The Ghost, which
has been silent in its appearances before the play opens and in 1.1 and
1.4, speaks to Hamlet in 1.5, revealing the secret of his death—'Murder
most foul' (1.5.27) at the hands of his brother, Claudius, the present
KING (5)—and insisting that Hamlet exact revenge. This demand establishes
the stress that disturbs Hamlet throughout the play. The Ghost reappears
in 3.4 to remind Hamlet that he has not yet accomplished his revenge,
thereby increasing the pressure on the prince.
The Ghost is clearly
an awesome presence, as the responses of Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio
make clear in 1.1 and 1.4, and we are plainly meant to be impressed by
Hamlet's bravery in speaking to it. At first, Hamlet cannot be sure
whether it is 'a spirit of health or goblin damn'd' (1.4.40), and his
doubts recur when he suspects that its message may be a lie that 'Abuses
me to damn me' (2.2.599). Only Claudius' reaction to the playlet
re-enacting the murder makes clear that the Ghost is to be trusted.
The Ghost pushes
Hamlet to face the trauma of his father's murder and his mother's
acceptance of the murderer. It keeps his anguish sharp. However, the Ghost
is absent at the end of the drama. It has represented the emotional
demands of Hamlet's grief and despair; when Act 5 offers the play's
reconciliation of good and evil, the Ghost has no further function.
Belief in ghosts was
common in Shakespeare's world—King James I who was regarded as a competent
writer on religious matters, wrote a treatise on their
characteristics—though many educated people regarded such beliefs as
unfounded superstition. Shakespeare's own opinion cannot be known, for the
only evidence is the attitudes he ascribes to his fictional characters;
Hamlet certainly accepts the reality of the spirit, doubting only its
purposes for a time. In any case, a ghost was a common feature of the
Revenge Play, a popular genre in the early 17th century, and Shakespeare
took the Ghost in Hamlet from one such work, the UR-Hamlet.
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